Discussions about the recently released integrity commissioner finding against former councillor Tina Comi boiled over on Monday night, with Mayor Brian Saunderson calling on a sitting councillor to apologize.
During their regular council meeting, councillors asked questions of integrity commissioner Jeffrey Abrams regarding Principles Integrity’s finding that Comi breached the town’s code of conduct, and recommendation she take training on in-camera sessions and confidentiality. The training will not have to take place since Comi is no longer on council.
However, the discussions started off on a sour note, with the dollar figure to have Principles Integrity investigate the complaint brought into the conversation.
“I’m one of those who is so disappointed that our community spent nearly $7,000 because Coun. Comi’s son walked into a training session,” said Coun. Yvonne Hamlin.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Madigan, but I’m going to speak for a few minutes, so try to withhold your [request to speak] sign,” she said.
Coun. Bob Madigan and Mayor Brian Saunderson immediately interjected.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Madigan.
“That was not a necessary comment,” said Saunderson.
Hamlin raised her voice.
“I was watching Coun. Madigan’s face and it was transgressing into territory where I’d have to involve you, Mr. Mayor,” said Hamlin.
“Council, let’s just take the temperature down,” responded Saunderson. “Coun. Hamlin, if you’d just walk back that comment, I’ll let you proceed, but we don’t need to start this off on an inflammatory note.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Hamlin.
According to the integrity commissioner report, Principles Integrity reported receiving complaints on Aug. 25, 2021 from six members of council (Councillors Deb Doherty, Kathy Jeffery, Bob Madigan, Mariane McLeod, Steve Berman and Mayor Brian Saunderson) alleging Comi was speaking with someone who was in the room during a July 19, 2021 virtual in-camera meeting, which is meant to be confidential.
A written response by Comi on Dec. 17 to address the allegations states her 11-year-old son walked into her home office during the in-camera meeting to tell Comi her daughter, 14, was not home from sports practice at the usual time and he was concerned about her whereabouts.
A letter from a lawyer representing Comi argued no confidential matter was being discussed when her son interrupted the meeting.
On Monday, Hamlin noted she was the sole sitting member of council who didn’t sign the complaint.
“To my mind, this was an emergency situation. What if I were sitting here in an in-camera meeting with my door closed and a fireman burst in to say my house was on fire? What if I started talking to him and forgot to say ‘I’m sorry,’ In reading this report tonight, I would have committed an ethical breach,” she said.
The report referred to the situation as a technical breach of the code of conduct.
Hamlin also pointed out that the purpose of the in-camera meeting was to get training on how to handle in-camera meetings while working from home.
“I think a child bursting in to tell his parent there is an emergency is not an ethical breach,” said Hamlin. “I’m so sorry this has transcended into what I feel is a public shaming of one of our councillors.”
Abrams reminded Hamlin that Comi’s son never appeared on camera, so councillors were not aware at the time to whom she was speaking.
“This is all a little bit besides the point,” said Abrams. “The technical breach... would not give rise to an investigation or trigger our curiosity about it, if the member recognized that there was an occurrence and take steps to give a genuine apology to council and move on.”
“The fact remains that this council puts a great deal of importance on things like adherence to its ethical responsibilities. In our view of the matter, that was disregarded,” said Abrams.
Coun. Mariane McLeod said she never wanted to file an integrity commissioner complaint.
“I agonized for three weeks about whether to file this one,” she said. “I can never accept or endorse that rules of confidentiality don’t apply to everybody. They do. They have to.”
McLeod said that since 2010, there have been members of council and staff who felt the rules of confidentiality didn’t apply to them, some of whom were exposed through the Judicial Inquiry.
“The training session held on July 19 for this council was the result of new breaches. In the weeks and months prior to that session, confidential information from previous in-camera meetings was being made public by somebody – we don’t know who – who clearly thought the rules didn’t apply to them,” said McLeod.
She noted that the concerns on July 19 were brought to the attention of Comi in the moment that occurred.
“The response was, the rules don’t apply here... and was brushed aside,” said McLeod.
McLeod said the exercise has been “painful,” but necessary to emphasize to current and future councillors and the public that confidentiality in closed sessions must be taken seriously.
Coun. Deb Doherty said she agreed with McLeod’s comments.
“I do regret the resignation of Coun. Comi,” said Doherty. “My concern wasn’t really what happened in-camera. What was a concern to me was the reaction, and in particular the action after the meeting, which was to take to social media. I felt it was completely inappropriate.”
A tweet posted by Comi on July 19, 2021 reads: “Tonight’s council meeting was also a reminder women continue to wear the stigma of ‘figure it out.’ We say we want working moms at the table, but how many truly want to offer support? Spoiler alert – not many.”
A previous tweet indicated her daughter was home an hour late because she was enjoying her paddle lessons.
Principles Integrity found the social media exchange did not constitute a breach of the code of conduct, but did indicate an “unapologetic tone” and “sarcasm.”
Coun. Steve Berman raised objection to the assertion by Coun. Comi that the complaint was “politically motivated.”
He pointed to multiple instances across Simcoe County and beyond where subject responses to integrity commissioner complaints have been that they were politically motivated.
“How do you combat (this narrative) when it seems the go-to line is that it’s politically motivated?” asked Berman.
Abrams responded that integrity commissioners are independent, and have a triage process to see if it’s frivolous or vexatious before investigating.
“It’s rarely the case that a complaint is brought against a person by their best friend,” said Abrams. “There are sometimes political or personal concerns, but that’s filtered out by our triage process. In this matter, Coun. Comi did raise that as a factor and we asked for particulars and none were provided.”
Comi resigned her seat on council on Jan. 21, penning a letter to the community and informing the clerk’s office at about the same time. Comi didn’t state in her letter why she resigned.
An interview request sent to Comi by CollingwoodToday.ca was declined.
The full report by Principles Integrity is available here.
Council voted 6-1 to receive the report, with Coun. Yvonne Hamlin voting against receiving it.